There were several reasons to expect a great show from Bruce and the boys tonight. For one, it was St. Patrick’s day, the sort of party holiday that Springsteen’s music is perfect for. For another, Milwaukee has a special Springsteen history. In ’75 he performed a now-famous show, halfway through which there was a bomb threat. For the couple hours it took to sort everything out the band went back the hotel bar and proceeded to get plastered. Which, needless to say, made for a lively second half, Bruce telling long rambling stories and running around screaming “Are you loose?” repeatedly.
Now there’s another reason for Milwaukee to loom large in Springsteen lore, with last night’s show being one of his best in a while. Definitely the best of the three I’ve seen, which is saying a hell of a lot. The band energy combined with setlist surprises made for a show enjoyable both to the diehards and the one-show goers.
The surprises were there from the beginning. Opening with No Surrender added a new song to me seen-in-concert repertoire, and is a great choice. It’s fast, rocking, and familiar. The only advantage something like Night has is a strong sax part, which is such a staple of the E Street sound it’s nice to get Clarence Clemons some showcase time from the beginning. Three songs later was the biggest surprise of the night though, the tour debut of Streets of Fire in only its fourth performance since ’79. Several songs later came a show highlight, the second performance of It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City thus far. It was loose, ragged, and far from perfect, but extraordinarily fun, the band grinning and playing around as Bruce conducted. It’s the first song I’ve seen off his debut album, and hopefully he’ll rotate others in more regularly. That led straight into another surprise, a song that was a regular on previous tours, and his most legendary performances ever in ’78, Prove It All Night. It wasn’t as epic as it was then, but Nils did bust out with a long guitar solo just when you thought the song was ending.
By then I would have been more than satisfied with an already surprising setlist, but Bruce just kicked it up a notch with a two-pack of rare songs. Cadillac Ranch, decided upon on the spot, saw guitarist Nils Lofgren toss on a goofy green hat as the audience screamed along every word. Lyrical undertones of mortality were ignored in the singalong spirit of this party number. From there he quieted things down with another non-setlisted song, My Hometown. I was never the biggest fan of this one, but my appreciation for it grew seeing the solemnity Bruce and the band approached it with and the reverence with which the audience sang along. A song so meaningful to so many people (the favorite of my show companion) can’t be all that bad. And, as the second time played on the tour proper, it was another nice surprise.
The surprises in the encores rivaled anything from the main set though. For the first time this tour, Girls In Their Summer Clothes was dropped as the first song of the encore, replaced by the outtake Loose Ends. The third time played on the tour for that one, but since I was there for its debut in Hartford it was less exciting for me than for others. The second slot of the encore is usually the biggest surprise slot of the show, and I was hoping for anything but Jungleland (ironic, since it’s most people's top choice, but I’d already seen it). True to form, Bruce both met and denied my request at the same time. It was clear there was a special treat in store when a road crew member brought a stand-up bass to center stage, and an elderly man took his place. It turned out to be none other than legendary Astral Weeks bass player Richard Davis, here to reprise his roll in my favorite Springsteen song (well, one of two), Meeting Across the River. The second time having been played this tour, this rarity is one that many go their whole life without hearing. It went straight into Jungleland, which in that context I didn’t mind being played a bit. Clarence’s sax solo wasn’t quite as incredible as in Montreal, but Bruce and the band seemed tighter and more into each lyric. The focus onstage reverberated through the audience, as the beer runs and slow-song chatter cut out completely and everyone watched it build and build.
Any setlist-follower would assume that was it for the surprises, but not so, as instead of the usual Dancing In the Dark, another fun rocker was played in the penultimate spot, Ramrod. It’s a pretty worthless song on record, but live is something else entirely, extending on and on with loads of Bruce-Steve schtick. “Is it quittin’ time?” “Naw…” “Is it sleepy time?” “Naw…” “Is it sexy time?” “Naw…” “Well, Steve, what time is it?” Long pause.” “It’s BOSS TIME!” No one knows how to make an audience explode like Bruce, even with a song that most would not consider that great. A clear highlight, and my eighth new song for the night, I don’t know why this isn’t an every-nighter.
So those were the surprises. Whew. But what was even more special about this show was how good all the OTHER songs were, songs I’d seen twice already and thought I was bored of. I’ve never liked She’s the One as much as most, but tonight it was tight as could be, every part in place and everyone focused on making it both fun and musically impressive, Roy Bitten pounding those keys for all they were worth. Devil’s Arcade, a highlight every night, stood out especially tonight for the passionate delivery. In seats for the first time, I noticed how much the lighting adds to songs like this one, setting a somber purple mood, but changing in elaborate patterns as the story unfolds. Springsteen really extended the Max Weinberg drum coda, each band member slowly fading out one by one as Max kept going and going. Keeping that momentum, The Rising following was especially tight, the backing vocals by Steve and Soozie heartfelt and biting.
And it would be impossible to talk about a Saint Paddy’s day show without mentioning the Irish-sounding American Land. It’s always a blast, but the crowd got especially into it tonight, many probably assuming it was played for the occasion. Bruce grabbed another green hat from the audience for Steve, and Garry sported a pair of green shamrock glasses tossed onstage. As it went on and on, neither the band nor audience could seem to get enough of the jigging and jumping. Another show to add to the Milwaukee legacy.